"We've got 15 more games, man. What were we, 0-2, last year?" -- Dolphins left guard Justin Smiley
"You can't bank on what we did last year. This is a totally different year." -- Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington.
Two different ways of looking at the Dolphins 60-minute flatulation here in Atlanta Sunday. Both came from the quiet, quickly clearing Dolphins locker room after Sunday's 19-7 loss to the Falcons, both said by bright men who can think and analyze quickly. David J. in Atlanta, doing what'll probably be my last bit of subbing for Armando before he fully returns to the blogosphere this week.
Smiley's an optimistic guy and chose to look on the sunny side of the street. He said they were on the road, in a "hostile environment" against a good team, got Atlanta's best, didn't play their best by any stretch, but were in the game most of the way. And, what if it the first Fasano fumble didn't happen, Smiley asked? Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson cracked Anthony Fasano with a shot that woke the guys buried under Secaucus strip malls, thus creating a fumble that Brian Williams raced off with, killing a probable Dolphins scoring drive and getting the Falcons a field goal right before halftime. Instead of 7-7 or 7-3, it was 10-0, Atlanta.
Fasano admitted, "The guy put a good hit on me, but I didn't have the ball secured" but that wasn't an every day hit. Smiley's right in that regard -- it's not a common play. Then again, he's wrong in that the Dolphins got the best of the Falcons.
(He's also wrong about "hostile environment." There were significant numbers of Dolphins fans in the Georgia Dome. Besides, a "hostile environment" is a Hell's Angels meeting gone two drinks too long or a married couple's house in the hours after an argument.)
It's not common for Matt Ryan to blow the two wide open touchdown throws he did, to Roddy White on the Falcons' first drive and to Jerious Norwood after the aforementioned fumble. Those were throws Ryan or any above average quarterback makes regularly. Instead of down 10-0 at the half, the Dolphins easily could've been down 21-0. Jason Elam missed an extra point and field goals of 42 and 38 yards, one off the left upright, before nailing a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter. That's seven points one of the best kickers of the last 10 years left on the field in a dome game.
This could've been so much worse for the Dolphins. They had all of two red zone trips. TWO! Which is worrisome going into the Inidianapolis game next week. Those are throws Peyton Manning doesn't miss, unless the Colts are facing Baltimore. The Dolphins might want to take a page out of the Ravens book and wait until just before the snap to get in exact position, just to make Manning's reads tougher. Then, it'll be at San Diego, off a short week and a trip to the West Coast.
Tough way to make an NFL living. That's why they needed to come out stronger Sunday.
You'd hope the Dolphins would run the ball with more consistency against Indianapolis, which is getting bigger and younger. Then again, Atlanta went with youth and relative inexperience and blew up running play after running play against the Dolphins after being one of the league's worst run defenses last year.
"They did a lot of line movements, darting, pinching, spiking, those kinds of things," Smiley said. "Teams like that have to do that against a team that can run the footbball. They did a good job of it."
By the time the Dolphins got anything together in the run game by going with pitches, thus giving the runner more time to examine his options and the line more time to open running lanes, the score was 10-0. NFL coaches tend to get antsy down by a touchdown and get downright panicky if they go down by double digits. There was no time to truly work the running game.
Chad Pennington had two very strange plays, either of which might've changed the game's course. The first was in the second quarter. Atlanta blitzed. Wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. was a good 6-10 yards behind the defensive back. Instead, with time to see the open Ginn on that side of the field, Pennington chucked the ball out of bournds.
The other play, a third-and-5 from the Dolphins 33, began with Pennington in shotgun and Ronnie Brown going in motion to the right. Nobody picked up Brown after the snap, leaving him all alone at the right sideline, a perfect safety valve that could take the pass a long way. Alas, Pennington never looked at that way and dumped off to Davone Bess for no gain. Brown stood in full fume before snatching off his chin strap and exchanging loud voices with one of the Dolphins assistants.
The skill position guys didn't appear to be on the same page much of the day. Or, maybe they were on the same page, but were reading different books. You know, one reading the Torah and the other, the New Testament.
When I asked Chad Henne when was the last time he dressed, but wasn't even the lead backup, just a guy that would be used in case of emergency. He quickly iterrupted, "I'm still the backup." then went back into good trooper mode, admitting he's never been in a "third quarterback" role but he knew it was a possibility if they had a package they wanted to use with White.
Speaking of which, Tony Sparano indicated there was a lot more to the White package the Dolphins didn't get around to using. "Get around to?" It's not as if the score or halftime or the third quarter snuck up on anybody.
Jake Long had some interesting words: "We had some great battles today. He's a great athlete. He's got power and he's herky-jersey. He's super quick so he can go inside, outside or around the edge. It was fun playing against him."
Uh-huh. Fun? To get his first sack, the 268-pound Abraham treated the 317-pound Long like Abraham's daughter Endrayce was in a flaming car back in the pocket and the only way Abraham could get to her was through Long. He plowed Long so badly, the sack was sponsored by John Deere. And next week, Long gets to have "fun" with Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney.
Hey, the sack collectors are going to get theirs, especially if you get down a couple of scores behind and/or don't have the running game working. But you must minimize the damage. Long gave up two sacks, one to Abraham and another to one Kroy Biermann, a second-year backup who had two sacks and 21 tackles in 16 games last year.
Pennington's fourth quarter drive against an eased up Atlanta defense boosted his final passer rating to 84.8. After three quarters, with the score 16-0, Atlanta, Pennington was 12 of 16 for 100 yards and one interception, which works out to 64.6. Very mediocre -- if this were 1975. Nobody could get open downfield consistently, which didn't help the quarterback.
The defensive line might've been the bright spot of the day for the Dolphins. Second-year man Philip Merling, a second round pick, didn't practice well enough to keep his starting spot. He certainly played well enough Sunday, with a tackle for loss and affecting several passes. Merling, Starks, Jason Ferguson, Paul Soliai and Kendall Langford all did a good job of stuffing the run like Grandma Bessie stuffs cabbage around this time of year. Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, averaged 4.6 per carry last year. Sunday, they averaged 3.0 and it only got that high because of a couple of garbage time runs.
But, downfield, the Dolphins obviously had their problems, especially covering Tony Gonzalez. After Gonzalez's five catches for 73 yards that included a diving 19-yarder to set up one touchdown and a 20-yarder catch-and-lope that was Atlanta's second touchdown, safety Gibril Wilson said he didn't think Gonzalez did anything special.
"He's a possession receiver and he's a body kind of guy," Wilson said. "A lot of times, when you're right there, you can't get through him and to the ball or they'll call PI. He did what he was supposed to do, but it was nothing special."
If you say so. Gonzalez has been so nothing special that he's bound for the Hall of Fame some day.
The special teams avoided disaster, not allowing a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown, but did allow the 18-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. The receiver most targeted was White, who has had 10 balls thrown his way. In a second place tie are Gonzalez with nine. Dolphins' wide receiver Davone Bess led the Dolphins with seven.
The wake up call comes early and it's late with little else to say about this game in this forum.